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Student Mental and Emotional Health – Part One

For the last five years or so, Ed Directions planning teams have been studying the impact of mental and emotional issues on student learning and student performance. We found that there is research dating back to the 1960’s that relates student mental and emotional issues to underperformance in school. In the 1980’s and 1990’s researchers were recommending that schools change behavior policies from the traditional “if/then” punishment patterns to policies that emphasized the development of optimum behaviors. In the 2010’s, there was a push to develop rituals and routines that supported optimum behaviors that created an “etiquette” for student to teacher and student to student interactions. Today, in response to the pandemic, the focus is switching to early identification and targeted assistance for a wide range of mental and emotional issues. Federal and state departments of education and many of the national education consortia are suggesting a rise in issues related to student physical, mental, and emotional health, and have begun recommending that schools revisit their student support plans.

The Ed Directions team spent some time studying what pandemic “conditions” may have triggered this level of urgency and the people who shape school policies, and found that there was little consensus in the data referenced in different studies. In the end the team developed a summary of what they considered the major factors that might be related to a higher incidence of mental and emotional issues in students. An abbreviated summary includes:

  • Community stresses – elements in the community that create stress on students. This includes daily “body counts” of pandemic victims, nightly coverage of riots and insurrections, daily news stories on the increase in shootings and deaths in local communities, and blanket coverage of “uncivil” interactions between and among political, social, and racial groups.
  • Learning environment stress – the stresses caused by student engagement and learning work outside the familiar and “comfortable” environment of the classroom. Virtual or home learning, hybrid models, and ad hoc homeschools remove many of the “legacy” supports the students enjoyed in their classrooms and put them – without adequate preparation – into environments where they have to “invent” the culture and climate of their learning center.
  • Personal stresses – because of the pandemic and the civil unrest of the last year many students have experienced personal tragedies (pandemic deaths, family businesses destroyed, covert hospitalizations for self or for family members, loss of parental employment, etc.). These personal stresses are significant and can have both short-term and long-term impacts on student mental and emotional health and can trigger “episodes” that fall outside those normally found in the school setting (e.g. Post traumatic stress, emotional insecurities, serious and multiple anxieties, etc.)

Ed Directions research indicates that mental health professionals are looking at specific causes of these stressful elements. Some that have been mentioned include:

  • The loss of the learning community – students as early as pre-kindergarten become accustomed to a school environment that builds a comfort zone of relationships and expectations that support them in their development as learner and performer. The climate of the classroom, the rapport with the teachers and their peer group, the familiarity of rituals and routines, and the structured interaction with adults and peers in academic and nonacademic situations support the student social and emotional growth. Removing students from that community can be traumatic and can cause levels of stress that block learning and performing to potential.
  • Social isolation – in a regular school setting, students develop social “webs” that are groups of friends/acquaintances that work and socialize together. This is an important part of the development of social and emotional competencies and etiquettes that support student social interactions outside the classroom. Removing this social support system can cause regression in social and emotional maturity and make it difficult for students to “re-socialize” when school reopens.
  • Radical changes in student and teacher work – in the first three weeks of school a classroom interact as a learning team. By the end of first grade students have begun to develop a “way of working” in the classroom and a way of interacting with the teacher, and by third grade have developed an individual learning style. All of this changed with virtual school and hybrid learning environments. Students were taken out of their learning environment and put into an environment where the schedule, the rituals and routines, teacher work, and the student work were all different. Students had to design and monitor their own learning environment and learning work no longer had ongoing teacher monitoring with shaping feedback to provide direction.
  • The loss of school systems – in a regular school setting there are number of systems that support and facilitate student learning and facilitate student engagement and co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Transportation, breakfast and lunch programs, physical education, athletic and academic competitions, and targeted school support systems for students falling behind as learners or performers are all important to the social and emotional development of the students. They provide multiple opportunities for different types of engagements with other students and teachers, they expand social circles, and provide multiple etiquettes to prepare students for operating in diverse environments. The loss of these systems is a frequently overlooked impact of the pandemic.
  • The absence of adult mentors – in effective schools, academic leadership makes it a point to make sure that all students have “access” to an adult mentor (an adult with whom the student feels comfortable conducting a dialogue about issues of importance to the adult or the student). These adult “lightning rods” are critical for helping volatile students and students with serious attitude or perception issues develop “healthy” responses to unsettling conditions in school and can support their movement towards mental and emotional maturity.
  • Changes in the greater community – over the past year, many communities have been seriously impacted by the pandemic (or told they were seriously impacted), many have been disrupted by riots or even insurrections, still more have seen an increase in serious crime and many have seen businesses and community recreational areas shut down or destroyed. For students confined to their desk at home, their yard, and perhaps their immediate neighborhood, the disruption of the greater community is an unsettling unknown and can increase both the social isolation of the student and the “siege mentality” of the home or immediate community.

As a result of their research, the Ed Directions planning team recommended that the Ed Directions development staff begin a study of district and school support plans for mental and emotional health issues. They also recommend that the team begin an intensive study of district and school “re-entry” plans to determine how schools are going to facilitate the re-en culturing/re-normalizing process for students who may be seriously at risk. Our leadership team started this part of the study in November 2020 and has developed some initial conclusions:

  • Most current district and school plans tend to be reactive. They provide guidance for helping students readjust after “a crisis” occurs. They have plans for a crisis that is a major incident (e.g. suicide, shooting, riot, serious classroom disruption), a “critical pattern,” or a minor set of incidents that relate to previously identified “at risk” indicators (e.g. behavior problems, attendance issues, radical changes in student performance). Most of the plans include a central office contact person to be alerted and then to oversee and monitor the situation, a defined set of policies and procedures, a reporting protocol, a menu of interventions and resources that can be utilized, and a conclusion procedure).
  • In most plans the focus is on preventing harm to students, getting the classrooms “back to normal” as quickly as possible, and providing ongoing support for students who may have been seriously impacted by the event. Many, focus more on restoring order than monitoring the physical and emotional cause or impact of the event.
  • Most current plans focus on symptoms of issues rather than the issues themselves. “At risk” indicators tend to be traditional patterns (e.g. attendance problems, behavior issues, volatility, etc.) and support tends to be an implemented program rather than an intentional process involving diagnosis of cause and individualized support program.
  • Monitoring and reporting is usually focused on proving the procedures have been followed and support has been provided rather than monitoring student with the support program and the impact of the program on student mental health. (“Doing things right” rather than “doing things right” so that the impact on the student is appropriate.

The pandemic has created a situation where the traditional approaches to student mental health must be rethought and redeveloped to meet and address mental and emotional health issues before they become serious or chronic barriers to individual and collective student learning and performance (we will have another blog on how teachers are affected). Many states are already addressing this problem. Maryland has been especially aggressive in attacking the issue and is beginning a restructuring of its mental health policies and procedures.

As educators who are expected to be leaders of learners who enable all students to be successful we have to be prepared to deal effectively with all barriers that prevent all students from achieving “success.” With the conditions related to the pandemic experiences, we have to recognize that for many students their mental and/or emotional health may have been compromised and they may need immediate and targeted support.

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